The Green Bay Packers defense was expected to be an elite unit this season. There were six starters who were former first round picks and a seventh in rookie Devonte Wyatt, who was on the roster and expected to eventually win a starting spot. With the offense replacing Davante Adams with three rookies and its two best offensive linemen recovering from major knee injuries, the defense was expected to carry the team early in the season as the offense got healthy and adjusted to the turnover in personnel.
But in the first half of the season, the unit failed to live up to expectations. The run defense was one of the worst in the league and the pass defense, while statistically strong, was often playing soft zones that gave receivers large cushions that they used to make important catches and keep drives alive.
The defense also struggled to rush the passer and to create turnovers. The Packers lost their best pass rusher, Rashan Gary, during their Week 9 loss to the Detroit Lions. Speculation started spreading that defensive coordinator Joe Barry would be fired, possibly during the season but certainly once the 2022 campaign ended.
But in recent weeks, the Packers defense has found its groove and has taken their game to a higher level. Now, the defense is getting the job done and has shut down some dangerous offenses like the Miami Dolphins and the Minnesota Vikings.
“I think we’re playing with a lot more passion,” Packers head coach Matt LaFleur told reporters. “I think it’s evident. It shows up all over the tape. Guys are excited. You can see it all last night, I really felt like from the first play all the way through the course of the game.”
The pass rush has certainly improved. There are multiple players involved with that improvement. Kenny Clark has picked up the pressure he’s added from the interior defensive line in recent weeks. Preston Smith has gotten more consistent pressure on the quarterback in the last few games. Rookie Kingsley Enagbare has also improved as a pass rusher since taking over the starting job after Gary’s injury. Depth has also been added in Justin Hollins who has 2.5 sacks in just five games since joining the team.
Barry has also added different blitz packages which have linebacker Quay Walker and some safeties also being used to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
The result has been nine sacks over the last three games all of which the Packers won. They also have gotten consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks that have resulted in turnovers. Over the last four games, the Packers defense has created 12 turnovers and the team is a plus-nine in turnover differential. That has been a big reason for the team’s four-game winning streak.
After struggling in the first half against Miami’s speedy duo of Jaylen Waddle and Tyreek Hill, Barry and the secondary made adjustments that helped the team shut down the Dolphins in the second half and hold them scoreless. They also held Justin Jefferson, who entered the game leading the NFL in catches and receiving yards, to just one catch for 15 yards one week later.
One way this was accomplished by changing the pass coverage from a soft zone to a zone with Jaire Alexander covering Jefferson man-to-man on roughly two-thirds of the pass patterns he ran. The fact that Barry and the defense adapted, changed their coverages and blitz packages and frustrated Jefferson and Cousins throughout the game was particularly effective.
The result was that the Vikings scored only three points before the Packers held a 41-3 lead in the fourth quarter and put in their backups on defense. The field goal, in fact, came off a blocked punt that gave the Vikings the ball first and goal at the Green Bay one-yard line. The defense stopped Minnesota on three straight plays and forced the field goal attempt.
LaFleur feels the difference in his defense’s play. “The physicality, the communication, all of it,” LaFleur said. “Guys are playing off one another. Just the play style, it felt different. Quite frankly, I think it looked different, too.”
The coach also feels the adversity and early-season struggles that the defense went through makes them stronger now that they’ve found a groove. “Anytime people go through a little bit of adversity and you can come out the other side, I think it callouses you to some degree,” LaFleur added. “I think it can bring everybody closer together. Because there was a point there when you’re sitting at 4-8 when it can go a lot of different ways and … they chose to stick together, to trust one another.”
The Packers will need one more big game from their improved defense to reach the playoffs. The Detroit Lions feature a dangerous and skilled offense which is fourth in the league in points scored and third in yards gained.
Still, the Packers wouldn’t have won four straight games to gain control of their own playoff destiny without the improved play of their defense. They need to win one more to get back to the dance.
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